Secret tricks: Never ever pay for access to a scientific article!

It is a cold shock to see a request for money for a scientific article. I just saw one for $35.95 for a paper I actually wrote! Now why would I pay for a paper I published in 2014? I subscribe to the journal, as does my institution. It isn’t new. It isn’t going to lead to any patents or anything, though I’m happy to see it has been cited 11 times already. I could have found it on my own computer, but searching Google Scholar can be more convenient.

I am strongly for open source everything. Second to that, why can’t every journal follow what PNAS does, make everything available after 6 months, and immediately from many countries? I publish often, but not always, in open journals, but this is not the topic for this entry. What do I do when I hit one of those infuriating pay walls? First, remember never to pay!

I’m at a university that subscribes to a lot, so I have a way to just proxy the request and get the article. This nearly always works for me, but it may not for you. What should you do if you are not at a university that subscribes to the journal?

  1. Email the author. They will nearly always quickly send you a PDF of the paper.
  2. Email a friend who can get the paper for free because they are at a university.
  3. Go to a university and work in their library or elsewhere if you can then log on as a guest and get behind the paywalls.
  4. If you are willing to move on the edge, go to Sci-Hub. I’m not posting a URL because this a cite that breaks copyright, which is illegal in many places, so I’m guessing the host changes often. I might have entered the URL of my own paper into Google, gone to the first site, which might have been in Cyrillic alphabet, and I might have entered the DOI of my paper and bingo, it might have downloaded just like it looked in the journal.


    Vulture publishers put up paywalls

So, yes, this blog is really a place to tell you about Sci-Hub. Here is the Wikipedia article about it. I have heard some people with the same ability to get behind the pay wall with proxies, use Sci-Hub because it is fast and convenient. It may not be easy to email all the authors of papers you want.

My research is paid for by two sources: the National Science Foundation, which is a USA federal agency supported by our tax dollars, and my university, a non-profit which means it is also supported by tax dollars since it doesn’t pay taxes. Why should some other party be allowed to block my work from ready access? I know this is in my hands and I can publish only in open places, but for my students that is a decision that could hurt them. Also, my actions are not going to change the whole system very soon.

The publishing climate is changing quickly. Until everything is free, there are options. Use them and read!


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Public Communication, Research. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Secret tricks: Never ever pay for access to a scientific article!

  1. ATL says:


  2. Ash says:

    Spot-on post. Money-grabbing vultures. This is where the so-called “internet trolls” should be targeting their collective energies.

  3. Ruth Lewis says:

    Good options list but there is another, interlibrary loan. If the reader doesn’t have an academic position, even public libraries offer this service and it is exceptionally fast compared to what I remember as a student.

  4. Nancy Dudek says:

    I agree with Ruth’s comment! My first step is to contact the librarian who is assigned to my unit. They have procedures to get the article quickly and legally 🙂 Plus, it is an opportunity to have a conversation with the library about which journals are useful. They always welcome the feedback.

  5. Ruth Lewis says:

    Just thought I’d mention this recent blog post, Access Denied which makes a similar case for access problems especially for scholars not aligned with a university.

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